Fiji Airways is finally able to breathe again, this week coming up for air, having survived a 20-month self-imposed international tourism ban due to the global pandemic.
The Fijian national carrier resumed commercial services from Sydney on 1 December 2021 – the first flight since pausing all overseas operations at the start of April 2020.
Passengers and guests, including LATTE, aboard FJ914 from Sydney to Nadi were greeted with typical Fijian flamboyance on arrival, with melodic choirs and Fijian warriors flanking the aerobridges upon entering the terminal. And of course, with the passionate and exuberant holler of “BULA!” it was impossible not to smile and feel their happiness at seeing foreign travellers again.
For Fiji Airways (FJ), the excitement was relayed even on board the flight by Captain Mosese Naivolasiga, who referred to this week’s international flight resumption as a “new beginning”. (Captain Naivolasiga’s full heartfelt welcome is transcribed below).
Andre Viljoen, Managing Director and CEO of Fiji Airways said he was “absolutely thrilled” to have his airline back in business.
FJ914 is complemented by a second daily service from Sydney, along with a daily flight from Melbourne, a daily from Los Angeles, up to five weekly services from San Francisco, and twice a week from Honolulu.
Speaking exclusively with LATTE at Nadi International Airport, Viljoen said “the biggest challenge” that Fiji Airways had faced during the pandemic “was the uncertainty of when it would end”.
“We kept saying, maybe in three months time, maybe four months time… and we eventually just had to sit back and say, well why don’t we plan for every possible date that it could likely happen. We’d planned for 1 September ’20, 1 December ’20, 1 April ’21, 1 June ’21, and arranged all our cash flows and everything around those dates to make sure that we had sufficient cash to survive,” Viljoen said.
“I call it turning uncertainty into a type of certainty. It means you’re working towards a goal.”
For Viljoen, who is also the Chair of Tourism Fiji, what excites him most about FJ’s relaunch “is that we are reigniting the economy”.
Since announcing its return to service on 10 October until now, bookings have soared with the airline to around 140,000 arrivals – half of that for the months of December 2021 and January 2022 (ie. the Australian school holiday period).
“For the two weeks starting mid-December and then the two weeks from the beginning of January there’s not a seat available. We put on an extra frequency to see if they’d book and it has booked solid.”
Viljoen said forecasts for a return to profitability (based on operations in late 2019 and pre-COVID) for the carrier is mid-2024.
“We’ve assumed it will be a slow ramp-up from now and for 18 months. It’s obviously a lot quicker and we are very happy with that.”
To secure the airline’s future, Fiji Airways has arranged “a significant amount of loans to stay alive” – ie. long-term loans of 15-years.
Room to grow
For the Australian market, beyond Sydney and Melbourne, Viljoen is keen to restart Brisbane services once the deterring quarantine restrictions are lifted in Queensland (at this stage, when a 90% vaccinated rate is achieved), and he is psyched to relaunch Adelaide flights again.
“We’re really sad because we’ve got a lot of loyal supporters and customers from Brisbane, and the Gold Coast area,” he said, suggesting they are missing out following the reopening of international travel for residents of NSW and Victoria.
“And we’ll go back to Adelaide soon to two-, three-times-a-week and start rebuilding that market.”
He is however enthusiastic about resuming services to cater for the New Zealand market (Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland), from what looks like beginning February 2022.
Services to Singapore will restart from 17 December “which we are very excited about,” he said.
The 14-day quarantine period for returning Japanese visitors has deterred FJ’s relaunch of flights to Tokyo Narita for the immediate future.
Fiji Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, told LATTE new markets for Fiji Airways may include seasonal charter flights to/from Canada, and confirmed a route to the US mid-west was on the horizon.
“We understand that Canada is a bit hungry, so whether Fiji Airways does charter flights – they’ll need to make a commercial decision on – but again we want to look into that space.”
“Fiji Airways purchased two A350s prior to COVID which have a longer range and can maybe open other destinations within the USA, other than the West Coast,” namely Dallas and/or Chicago, Sayed-Khaiyum told LATTE at Nadi Airport.
Viljoen added: “Chicago opens the East Coast for us. The New York market now needs to fly via Los Angeles. To offer Chicago nonstops to Fiji takes out a leg for the East Coast market,” which he believes will be of increased appeal.
Fiji Airways’ A350s don’t have the range to reach the prized New York market non-stop, but it will “comfortably reach Chicago,” the FJ CEO said.
Boeing MAX-8 confidence
Viljoen said Fiji Airways’ Boeing 737-MAX8 aircraft has been a game-changer for the airline. The variant has also made flights to Adelaide a more feasible option.
“What’s made the difference is our new MAX8 aircraft. We’re operating five of those now. They’ve got the legs to do Adelaide comfortably whereas the old 737-800 would need a tech-stop.”
“We’ll do Melbourne, Sydney – because we do one Sydney flight with the [Airbus] 350 and one with the MAX. Melbourne with a MAX and Brisbane with MAX, Auckland with a MAX, Wellington with a MAX, Honolulu with a MAX. So it’s our regional aircraft of choice.”
Questioned by LATTE over the aircraft’s reliability and the airline’s confidence in it, Viljoen said the MAX8 “is probably the most tested and certified aircraft, ever.”
“We did a few things right when we took the first deliveries. We have our own Flight Academy and we have a MAX8 flight simulator. We put all our pilots through two lots of simulated training, even before we flew the first time. “
“One of the issues that happened was most airlines put their pilots through a two-hour computer-based conversion, and we didn’t. So we were comfortable.
“And you’ve got to look at an example like Southwest Airlines who had been flying the aircraft since November ‘17 and 24,000 flights without an issue. They also trained their pilots with the simulator. I think it’s a combination of, yes there was a problem, but also whether the pilots had enough experience to check their skills.”
Crew recruitment restart
Fiji Airways has already started to ramp up its cabin crew workforce after the pandemic saw the airline have no choice but to lay off those rolls when it wasn’t flying.
“We had foreign pilots whose contracts ended and we didn’t renew them. And we retained all our local pilots and throughout this time we’ve been upgrading and training. So we got the MAX-sim [MAX-8 simulator], we’ve been training them all on the new software.”
“Our 330 pilots have been flying freighters around the clock. So the pilots have been busy throughout.”
Viljoen said the process of rebuilding the cabin crew was progressive. To date, we have 250 cabin crew, and in peak times that will rise to around 400.
It’s been a long hiatus for Fiji Airways, but business is back and in force.
Captain Mosese Naivolasiga’s heartfelt announcement aboard FJ914, 1 December 2021
“Today is a special day. It’s a new beginning as we hope not only for you as you take your first step for your holiday but for our nation.
“Your tourist for your holiday and travel arrangements has already made a difference to our people at home for the last few weeks, and especially for today going forward. COVID-19 has affected us all, regardless of whatever nation you are in, we have been severely affected. So much so our people at home.
“As we take our next first step at trying to get back to normal we are so grateful for your tourist and to be with us this lovely morning, and as such on behalf of a very grateful nation we’d like to thank each and every one of you and for those that will be gracing our shores in the coming days, weeks and months as we recover, and create hope for our people.
“Not only for our nations but for those who have been affected severely. So on behalf of a grateful nation, please do accept our sincere gratitude and we would like to thank you in our traditional way by saying “vanaka vaka levu.”
LATTE is this week reporting live from Fiji as a guest of Fiji Airways, Tourism Fiji and Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa.